Butterfly Effect: Could Myanmar Sanctions Backfire on Biden? - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Butterfly Effect: Could Myanmar Sanctions Backfire on Biden?

Butterfly Effect: Could Myanmar Sanctions Backfire on Biden?

By Charu Sudan Kasturi

SourceThet Aung / AFP

WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

Biden is being true to his word on supporting democracy. But that might not be enough.

Charu Sudan Kasturi

Charu Sudan Kasturi

OZY Senior Editor Charu Sudan Kasturi's column, "Butterfly Effect," connects the dots on seemingly unrelated global headlines, highlighting what could happen next and who is likely to be impacted.

When President Joe Biden took office, the cast of characters that presented major foreign policy challenges included the political and military leaders of Russia, China, Iran, North Korea and a handful of other authoritarian states. Two weeks into Biden’s term, though, a short, bespectacled general most in the West hadn’t previously heard of — Myanmar’s Min Aung Hlaing — has presented the U.S. president with his sternest global test so far.

After dithering for 36 hours, the U.S. finally called what unfolded in Myanmar on Monday by its proper name: a coup. Myanmar’s military, led by Min Aung Hlaing, has grabbed power in the fledgling democracy, detaining the country’s elected leadership — including de facto civilian head Aung San Suu Kyi — and making clear it intends to directly hold the reins for at least a year. On Wednesday, the military pressed bizarre charges against Suu Kyi, accusing her of illegally importing walkie talkies (in a land flooded with illicit weapons and narcotics). By calling the military takeover a coup, Washington has set the stage to cut its already limited aid to Myanmar and introduce sanctions against the Southeast Asian nation. Indeed, Biden threatened sanctions on Monday.

Strong action against Myanmar would be in keeping with the principled pro-democracy positions Biden and his team have taken since his campaign for the presidency and through the transition of power. It could help reassure democratic movements around the world that Biden means what he’s been saying after four years during which America relinquished its global leadership. But sanctions against Myanmar could come at a cost — for America. And how Biden’s team deals with the Myanmar crisis will tell the world whether the latest occupant of the White House has the diplomatic savvy needed alongside good intentions to actually get what he wants.

U.S. sanctions will push Myanmar further into China’s lap at a time Beijing is otherwise locked in tense standoffs with most of its other neighbors.

But first, it’s important to understand the land mines that America risks stepping on. China, its greatest rival, has long backed Myanmar’s military and has in recent years stepped up its supply of sophisticated weapons systems to that country. When Myanmar transitioned to a democracy, Chinese President Xi Jinping initially forged a good working relationship with Suu Kyi, who visited Beijing. But in recent months, ties between China and Myanmar have frayed, with Suu Kyi’s now-ousted government trying to break free of Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative, worried about becoming overdependent on Beijing.

Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, Myanmar’s army chief, would not have attempted the coup without the confidence that Beijing would — at least quietly — back him. His calculation has proved right thus far. China, along with Russia, has refused to condemn the coup, only using boilerplate language to call for peace and stability in the nation. On Tuesday, the U.N. Security Council met to discuss the Myanmar crisis but failed to issue a prepared statement demanding the release of Suu Kyi and others, with China and Russia — who hold veto power — reportedly stalling the effort. In other words, while Min Aung Hlaing is in charge in Myanmar, there’s a dragon in the room that America can’t ignore.

U.S. sanctions will push Myanmar further into China’s lap at a time Beijing is otherwise locked in tense standoffs with most of its other neighbors. The sanctions would still pressure the military junta if others (apart from China and Russia) join America in stopping economic engagements with Myanmar. But we’re seeing evidence of why forging that global consensus will be difficult.

India and Japan have both made major investments in infrastructure projects in Myanmar in recent years, in part to counter China’s influence there. They are reticent about giving up on those. While both nations have criticized the coup and called for a restoration of democracy, they will be desperate not to cede more space in that strategically vital nation to Beijing. If India and Japan forge a new — even if uncomfortable — relationship with the Myanmar generals, U.S. sanctions could end up being ineffective.

One way to ensure that sanctions are global in their scope would be for Biden to follow his predecessor Donald Trump’s approach with Iran. Trump’s strictures against Tehran included secondary sanctions that threatened all countries and entities with U.S. sanctions if they traded with Iran. It was a bully’s approach that alienated America from close allies and friends in Europe, India and Japan — but it worked to dry up Iran’s economic partnerships, since most companies don’t want to risk losing access to the U.S. market.

Biden, who came to power promising to rebuild ties with traditional friends, is unlikely to want to go down Trump’s path. There is, however, one other path to a near-global consensus on Myanmar, and it’s one that Biden and his team should be familiar with. It’s the approach that President Barack Obama — under whom Biden served as vice president — took with Iran.

The Obama administration crafted a long-term plan for negotiations with Tehran on its nuclear program, then convinced other countries to reduce their consumption of Iranian oil for a temporary period. It managed to assure India, Japan and Europe that it was sincere in its talks with Iran and would withdraw sanctions on Tehran once a deal had been struck. The strategy worked and the nuclear pact was signed.

Can Biden use the experience of his foreign policy team to similarly bring America’s friends around on enforcing sanctions against Myanmar? Strongmen around the world will be watching.

Charu Sudan Kasturi

Charu Sudan Kasturi

OZY Senior Editor Charu Sudan Kasturi's column, "Butterfly Effect," connects the dots on seemingly unrelated global headlines, highlighting what could happen next and who is likely to be impacted.

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